Satellite images show Iran's mass graves for coronavirus victims

An image from Maxar's WorldView-3 satellite shows the Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery in Qom, Iran, on March 1, 2020. The cemetery is preparing for the pandemic by digging two long "trenches" of graves, each about 100 yards (90 meters) long.  (Image credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies)

New DigitalGlobe satellite images from Maxar show Iranian authorities digging large numbers of graves in the Qom area, which media reports say is due to the growing numbers of coronavirus (opens in new tab) victims in the country.

The Washington Post, which noted that the graves were so extensive you can see them from space, said coronavirus caused several high-profile deaths in Iran's leadership. "Among the dead are members of parliament, a former diplomat and even a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader," the Post report said (opens in new tab). "At least two dozen other officials, including a vice-president, have been affected."

Coronavirus is classified as a global pandemic, but most of the cases have been in China. Other affected countries – in most cases – have pockets of infection, according to the World Health Organization (opens in new tab), although there are exceptions. Italy, for example, is under nationwide lockdown, according to the BBC (opens in new tab)

Related: Dramatic effect of coronavirus lockdowns seen from space (opens in new tab) 

Images from the WorldView-3 satellite show the Hazrat Masumeh Shrine in Qom, Iran, before and after the coronavirus outbreak. The first case of coronavirus in Iran was reported in Qom on Feb. 19, 2020. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies)

The World Health Organization calls for countries worldwide to quickly move forward with containment procedures. This is already happening in the United States, where countless events were canceled in the last few days, and entities ranging from Disneyland to the National Basketball Association have suspended events. U.S. President Donald Trump also suspended most air travel from Europe for the next 30 days.

An imagery analyst at Maxar Technologies in Colorado, which manages DigitalGlobe, showed The Washington Post one image that appears to have a large pile of lime. Lime is a substance often used to manage odor and decay in bodies. Iranian health officials have said they are using lime for coronavirus victims, the Post added.

Iranian authorities have been moving swiftly, creating two lines of graves of 100 yards (90 meters) each; that's slightly less than the width of an American football field. The Post classified these graves as "trenches," although that terminology was disputed on social media.

An overview of Qom, Iran, as seen by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite on Feb. 27, 2020. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies)

The graves have also been seen by Iranian media up close in recent weeks, wrote Esfandyar Batmanghelidj in a Twitter thread (opens in new tab); he is founder and publisher of Bourse & Bazaar, a media company that supports business diplomacy between Europe and Iran.  

Local authorities said more than two weeks ago (on Feb. 25) that they would prepare more graves in response to coronavirus, Batmanghelidj said, so the images didn't come as a surprise. 

"What these sobering images reflect, as far as I can tell, is the very sad situation where a local authorities have had to take the unusual step of digging a trench of graves at the Behesht-e Masoumeh cemetery in order to give the many who are dying a timely burial," he wrote.

Islamic customs, Batmanghelidj added, call for swift burials that often happen within 24 hours of death. He included several local news reports in his thread, including one from Tabnak (opens in new tab) saying the authorities chose to put all the victims in a single location for sanitary reasons, including the ability to put bodies in cold storage until they could be buried.

Coronavirus basics

Iran has more than 11,000 known coronavirus cases with 514 reported deaths, according to numbers from Johns Hopkins University (opens in new tab). Both the Post and Batmanghelidj said the death toll is likely underreported.

Like everywhere else in the world, people with Iranian relatives who have died from the disease are grappling with the loss of their loved ones, as well as the restrictions required during burials.

"My uncle in Iran passed away from coronavirus," wrote Ramtin Arablouei, host for National Public Radio's history podcast Throughline, on Twitter (opens in new tab). "He was gentle and kind. He'd been battling cancer for several years. His family had to stand one hundred meters away and watch him be buried by men in hazmat gear. My aunt is now sick. Please take this virus seriously."

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Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.